Curfew allows nighttime to belong to the blind - Korea Times
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Curfew allows nighttime to belong to the blind

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Even for visually unimpaired people, negotiating the streets and alleys of Seoul in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was not easy. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection
Even for visually unimpaired people, negotiating the streets and alleys of Seoul in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was not easy. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection

By Robert Neff

At night, in the 1880s, the streets of Seoul belonged to women. Men, with very few exceptions, were confined indoors by a curfew which allowed women to roam the streets relatively safe from the view of their male counterparts. (Relatively safe, because, if we are to believe the accounts, the true monarchs of the night ― tigers and leopards ― sometimes prowled the streets.)

Percival Lowell, an American residing in Seoul during the winter of 1883/84 was one of the exceptions and vividly described his jaunts through Seoul's darkened streets. He also described some of the other exceptions:

"There is another class in the community who are permitted freely to roam at nights, ― blind men. A thoughtful kindness has given them an immunity they could never abuse. Unable to travel fast they can easily be watched; and so blind men's holiday in Korea is prolonged from the twilight on till dawn."

Lowell took more interest in the plight of the blind than many of his contemporaries. It appears, from his text, that encounters with blind people on the busiest streets of Seoul were not all that uncommon.

"They frequent the streets at all hours; and the manner in which they are both able and dare to cross the city is something little short of marvelous, for they go entirely alone. No small boy or faithful friend shelters them from the crowd, or guides them into passages for the moment clear. Armed only with a long staff, they venture alone into the thick of the city's throng. They walk boldly forward, and somehow escape unhurt; and so erect is their bearing and straight their course, that at first you would never suppose that to them it was always night. Of course, carriages, fortunately, are wanting; there is nothing worse than a bull to collide with. Also the moderate pace of the human travel around them makes matters less dangerous. But allowing for all favoring conditions, the deed is very daring, and the confidence, begotten of consideration, sublime."

Lowell made have been impressed with the visually-impaired pedestrians' jaunt through the streets, other pedestrians ― those who were not visually-impaired ― may have viewed them with less than compassion. According to Prof. Lim Dong-kwon, a folklorist, it was considered bad luck to meet a blind person in the streets.

The West Gate of Seoul, circa 1900. Robert Neff collection
The West Gate of Seoul, circa 1900. Robert Neff collection

It may surprise you to know that King Sejong (r. 1418-1450) ― honored for his role in the creation of Hangeul ― was robbed of his vision by diabetes. King Jeongjo (r. 1776-1800) suffered from poor vision and, despite the etiquette of the time, chose to wear his glasses in front of his council. He may have been the first Joseon monarch to openly wear glasses.

There were many causes for blindness. As mentioned above, diabetes blinded and, eventually, killed King Sejong. Smallpox ― a scourge of the past ― was especially feared for its high mortality amongst children ― the survivors were often left pockmarked or blind. Sometimes it wasn't the disease but the cure that robbed the victims of their vision.

Annabel Nisbet, a missionary, wrote:
"The number of children blind from measles and smallpox is appalling. Mothers will not infrequently bind tobacco or cow dung over the poor weak eyes, so that inflammation sets up, and the child becomes blind."

In the early 20th century, Reverend James Well recalled an incident he had while treating the governor of his province:

"He was suffering from inflammation of the eyes and quite severely. By the use of cocaine and other remedies I felt sure of quickly curing him. On one of my visits I notice a somewhat different medicine and asked what it was. He informed me that it was Korean medicine and that he was using it in one eye and my remedy in the other and watching to see which eye would get well first!"

Miss Perry's Home for Destitute Children in the early 1900s. Robert Neff Collection
Miss Perry's Home for Destitute Children in the early 1900s. Robert Neff Collection

Of course, there were other reasons for blindness ― sometimes it was punishment. Horace Allen, an American missionary in the 1880s, claimed that if a man falsely accused another man of a crime he was subject to be blinded for perjury. The wrongly accused or his family and friends could demand an eye from the false witness. Allen wrote:

"The culprit is made to stoop over and is then hit with the leaded end of a flexible stick upon a spot on the back of the head, where the eye protrudes sufficiently so that it may be cut off. If however the people who wish the eye are not prompt in doing the cutting operation the prisoner may quickly replace the eye and possess it thereafter in peace.

Despite the claims that this type of punished had occurred "many times," Allen seemed somewhat skeptical and noted it had yet to be witnessed by a foreigner.

Others sought spiritual or supernatural assistance in dealing with criminals. According to Prof. Lim, some people believed that a criminal would become blind if the eye of a snail was pricked with a needle.

Nisbet recalled treating a small child with severely infected eyes. The child's mother believed an evil spirit was responsible for her daughter's condition ― apparently the family had recently moved into a new residence and "failed to propitiate the guardian spirit." The spirit then punished the family by infecting the girl's eyes and the mother was reluctant to treat them as she did not want to further offend it.

Missionary doctors were able to save many children's vision through medication or surgery but for some there was nothing that could be done except to help them cope.

In 1900/01, Miss Jean Perry established the Home for Destitute Children near the West Gate in Seoul. Her efforts were lauded by the foreign community. Homer Hulbert acclaimed:

"Few of us would have believed that homeless children, bag-boys, and vagrants of extreme degrees, taken literally from the streets, could be brought in so short a space of time to such admirable discipline and to the preliminary stages of complete fitness for citizenship as these children exhibit."

He went on to describe how children as young as five years old could "take a wisp of straw and turn it deftly into a pair of shoes for his own wear." He was especially impressed with the skill of blind boys weaving colored mats and baskets.

Somewhat surprisingly, there were also visually-impaired criminals. In 1896, two blind men were accused of obtaining articles under false pretenses. Apparently they had purchased twenty-two rolls of cloth and paid using a cheque or promissory note. It was later determined that the cheque was worthless. Considering their visual impairment, perhaps they, too, were victims and had unknowingly passed on the bad cheque.

Other cases are a little clearer. In June 1909, a blind man named Soh Kan-il, of Ahyeon-dong, was arrested for theft. Apparently, he had gone to the residence of his friend, Kim Syong-tai (also blind), and stole 6 yen. What became of the case is unclear.

While blindness may have robbed some people of their earthly vision, for others, it allowed them a vision into the future ― as we shall see tomorrow.

Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books including, Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters.

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